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Victims in Ill. hazmat crash died of exposure to anhydrous ammonia

Approximately 500 Teutopolis residents within a mile of the crash scene were evacuated


The Effingham County Coroner said the victims of the accident in Teutopolis that released thousands of gallons of anhydrous ammonia are Kenneth Bryan of Teutopolis and his two children; Danny J. Smith of New Haven, Mo.; and Vasile Cricovan of Twinsburg, Ohio

Jeff Long/Effingham Daily News via AP, File

By John O’Connor
Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Five people died from exposure to a chemical that spilled after a semi-truck overturned in central Illinois, according to autopsies conducted Monday.

Effingham County Coroner Kim Rhodes said official results from the autopsies won’t be available for several weeks. The victims of the multi-vehicle crash in Teutopolis, about 110 miles (177 kilometers) northeast of St. Louis, were Teutopolis resident Kenneth Bryan, 34, and his children, Walker Bryan, 10 and Rosie Bryan, 7; Danny J. Smith, 67 of New Haven, Missouri; and Vasile Cricovan, 31, of Twinsburg, Ohio, were killed.

The tanker traveling on U.S. 40 Friday night veered to the right to avoid a collision when another vehicle tried to pass it. It jackknifed, toppled and hit the trailer hitch of a vehicle parked just off the road, leaving it with a 6-inch (15-centimeter) hole in the chemical container, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The crash spilled more than half of the tanker’s 7,500-gallon (28,390-liter) load of anhydrous ammonia — a chemical that can burn or corrode organic tissue. Farmers use it to add nitrogen fertilizer to the soil, and it acts as a refrigerant in the cooling systems of large buildings such as warehouses and factories.

Tom Chapman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Sunday that the remainder of the cargo had been removed and taken to a secure location as part of the board’s investigation.

The toxic plume released forced the temporary evacuation of about 500 Teutopolis residents within a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer radius) of the crash site.

Gina Willenborg, 36, and her husband, Jeff, were returning from an out-of-town wedding when a relative called about the evacuation. Willenborg said they were anxious to get home, where a babysitter was watching their three children, ages 7, 5 and 2.

Their car was deep in the highway blockade in Effingham, 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) west of Teutopolis, where police were turning away most drivers. Jeff Willenborg rushed to the front and told authorities they had to get by to retrieve their children.

“We got that call that there are people passing out. You don’t know what’s true, what’s not, but we could start to smell something,” Gina Willenborg said. “We start freaking out and so I called the sitter and said, ‘Just go ahead, wake the kids up and just get out.’”

They were able to meet the babysitter at the children’s daycare back in Effingham.

“Everyone’s hearts are just broken,” Gina Willenborg said. People’s lives “have been taken and other people are going to be having long, lingering effects,” she said.

Rhodes reported that five people, ranging in ages 18 to 61, were airlifted to hospitals.

Officials at GoFundMe said campaigns to defray expenses have been established for the Bryan family and Cricovan.

Ping’s Tavern, on the edge of the evacuation zone, on Sunday raised $7,000 for the Bryan family, according to a Facebook post.

According to the American Chemical Society, anhydrous ammonia is carried around the United States by pipeline, trucks and trains.

In addition to having a commercial driver’s license, the person behind the wheel of a toxic-substance tanker must study further and successfully complete a test for a hazardous material endorsement, said Don Schaefer, CEO of the Mid-West Truckers Association. But unless posted otherwise, there are no restrictions on transporting anhydrous ammonia on a public road, Schaefer said.

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